Except the ones we love.
by Miles Nolte
The figure stands solitary, centered in a boat or thigh-deep in pushing water. Mist and low light blur the edges. Line extends from a fishing rod. It’s a familiar image, composed to conjure solitude, silence, sacrament. But there was someone behind the camera and probably a third, shoved from the frame to maintain the narrative.
We anglers like to imagine ourselves as loners. Fishing isn’t a team sport, and many of us claim we do this to get away from humanity. But the truth is, the people involved in the culture of fishing are as powerful a pull as the water and what prowls it.
John Gierach wrote that, “There are only two types of anglers: those in your party and the assholes.” That contradiction of misanthropic and communal is at the heart of angling culture. I’ve met some of my favorite, and least favorite, people through water, sticks, and fish. Many of those people are fishing guides, like me.
‘That’s right, I’m the guide, and I’m telling you to pick your damned fly.’
Fishing guides are caricatures of anglers: selfaggrandizing escapists who want to spend all our time fishing alone. To make a life of it, and avoid real jobs, we start guiding, which guarantees we spend all our time with other people, watching them fish. Eventually we realize that guiding is a real job, and a service-industry job at that. Some of us find that we love it anyway, though we don’t claim to be any more social. We are, indeed, a culture of contradiction.
The guiding community, being an amplified extension of the fishing community, attracts interesting folks. One of my favorite guide characters— we’ll call him Brian—is infamous on the rivers he works. No one has a neutral opinion of Brian; they either adore him or loathe him. His clients pursue him with a reverence that flirts with cultish.
Brian communicates at high volume. He is generally yelling, laughing, or, with a select group of clients, blowing a Viking horn that bellows and echoes down the slow-flowing, crowded river. Most people only see the facade, but I’ve known Brian for over a decade, and there is targeted nuance to his methodology. He is a master manipulator—part sociologist, part psychologist, part cheerleader, part drill sergeant. His bluster is carefully crafted to usher clients from hapless sports toward becoming thoughtful anglers.
One night we were enjoying a few beers at Brian’s kitchen table, discussing the finer points of guiding and unwinding after a multiple-day group trip. Brian leaned in close, his bloodshot eyes boring into mine.
“You know how I get them to catch fish? You know how I make them better than they think they can be?”
He paused for a full 15 seconds without breaking stare.
As always, I blinked first.
“No, Brian, how?”
“I’ll tell you what I do. I pull over to the side of the river and drop anchor. I make them stop fishing. Then I drop a handful of flies on the cooler and say, ‘You pick your fly.’ Of course they always say, ‘No, you’re the guide, I don’t know what to pick.’”
His imitation of a client’s voice is always the same: high and nasal. “I tell them, ‘That’s right, I’m the guide, and I’m telling you to pick your damned fly.’ And then they grab the first bug they see, and I SLAP their hand”—Brian slapped his own hand hard enough to echo through the kitchen—“and I say, ‘NO! You take your damned time! You think. This boat isn’t going anywhere until you think about the fly you’re going to fish. I have all day.’ ”